It's getting increasingly difficult to put together this column. As the Raptors (46-21) continue to solidify themselves as the class of the sub-Cleveland realm in the Eastern Conference, poking holes in their Teflon exterior is becoming more and more trivial.
While fans may want fret over a potential first round match-up with the Bulls, Toronto's success during the regular season, even with the long-term injuries suffered by two starters, should have the Raptors clearly favoured in any opening round series. It's an incredibly fun team buoyed by a pair of stars at the peak of their career trajectories. Excitement should be the first emotion that comes to mind when looking forward to the playoffs; not trepidation.
But, the content train must roll on. There are still areas of the Raptors' game that are worrisome, especially when considered in the context of a playoff series. Let's get into reason number three why the playoffs should scare Raptors fans: Toronto's free throw dependence.
Why the Raptors' Free Throw Dependence Should Scare You
This one is pretty straightforward. Toronto currently sports the fifth-best offense in the NBA (107.2 points/100 possessions), behind the titanic foursome of Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland.
How does Toronto, a team that doesn't boast transcendent superstars or a gorgeous motion offense, hang with the big boys, you ask?
For starters, they combine a top-five three-point percentage (36.7%) with a fleet of skilled at-the-rim finishers like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Cory Joseph; they're great at scoring from the optimal areas of the floor. On top of that, the Raptors have an almost unmatched ability to rack up the easiest points to get in the sport: free throws.
As of March 18th, Toronto scores the second-highest percentage of its points at the line at a whopping 20.7 percent (Minnesota leads at 21.4). With 840 combined makes, the Lowry-DeRozan pairing has made more free throws than any set of teammates in the NBA.
DeRozan is particularly reliant on free throws. He ranks third in the league in attempts (577), second in makes (487). Getting to the line has become an integral part of DeRozan's game over the past three seasons, and never more so than this year where nearly one third of his points are of the free variety. His propensity for drawing fouls has routinely salvaged his efficiency on off shooting nights. We saw an example of this Thursday night against Indiana when DeRozan scored 28 points on 9-of-26 field-goal shooting, while going 10-of-12 from the stripe.
While it's encouraging that the Raptors have been able to tally so many easy points this season, the spectre of playoff whistles still looms. Free throws were the staple of last year's Raptors teams as well, and the unpredictability of officials and different tone of playoff basketball can make relying on calls a treacherous proposition.
After attempting the fourth-most free throws per game during last year's 49-win campaign (24.6), Toronto was awarded the fourth-fewest attempts of any playoff team on a nightly basis in the playoffs with just 21.3. Three attempts fewer doesn't seem like a catastrophic drop-off, but we're all aware of how razor-thin margins can be in the playoffs.
How Scared Should You Be?
Fear Level: 1 Referee Conspiracy out of 5
As much as the Raptors have relied on free throws for efficient offense this season, their dependence is way less of a concern than it was last year.
Toronto's offense was rudimentary as it comes last year, relying heavily on Lowry, DeRozan and Lou Williams creating looks for themselves and picking up chintzy fouls on over-zealous defenders. It was a formula that was bound to be busted when the playoffs started and officials tightened up with the whistles. DeRozan's free throw attempts per game fell from 7.2 in the regular season to just 4.3 in four games against the Wizards; Williams' unsustainably ridiculous .601 free throw rate dropped off precipitously; and Lowry was broken down physically. Without those three being able to find success the way they had all season, Toronto just didn't have enough reliable, supplementary options to compensate.
This season, Toronto is moving the ball more, is incorporating its big men more regularly in the pick-and-roll and has, as mentioned above, some of the most deadly close-range scorers in the league getting to the rim at will. The Raptors are attacking the paint the second-most of any team this season, driving 36.6 times per game, up from a middling 27.4 last year per NBA.com.
Not only is that improved dedication to driving yielding more in-close looks for the Raptors guards, but it's also creating more opportunities for the Raptors to draw fouls at the basket.
What's more - DeRozan and Lowry's free throw rates have both spike significantly this season. And for the conspiracy theorists out there who think the Raptors' All-Stars won't get calls other superstars get, it seems as though both guys have built up enough street cred to get the benefit of the doubt when they run into contact at the basket.
Everything about what the Raptors have done on offense this year feels more sustainable come playoff time than it did in 2014-15, including how they've gone about accruing their free throw tries. So while playoff calls are an unpredictable beast, getting to the line shouldn't be as much of a problem for the Raptors as it was last April.
Chances the Raptors Free Throw Dependence Scares You in the Playoffs.
Shoulder shrug emoji. Toronto's ability or inability to get to the line will probably be a game-to-game thing to keep an eye on. Because the NBA still doesn't have consistency when it comes to playoff refereeing crews, the Raptors could very well have trouble getting calls in one game and then pile up 50 attempts the next. Will there be games that cause irrational fans to question the integrity of the NBA? Probably. But there will also be games where the whistles go Toronto's way as well.
Pro-tip: don't get hung up on it too much either way. These things tend to even out in the end, and the Raptors have proven that they're more skilled at getting to the rim and drawing contact than most other teams in the league.
How much does Raptors free throw dependence scare you come playoff time?